Words matter, and probably anyone's who's ever sent the wrong email understands this. So it might have everyone from Washington D.C. to Silicon Valley a little on edge to know that the word Dictionary.com selected this year that encapsulates the mood of the country is based largely on the spread of falsehoods online. It's not quite as bad as "fake news," but Dictionary.com's 2018 Word of the Year isn't much better: Misinformation, as the site defines it, is, "false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead."
Though the term has been around since the 1500s, per a blog post written by the company's lexicographers, it has taken on a drastically new meaning in recent years with the rise of social media campaigns and the rapid ability to disseminate information. "[T]he word describes a phenomenon that has emerged given the large role technology plays in the spread of information, misinformation and disinformation alike," the company said in a press release provided to Elite Daily. "In an era of division about identity, environmental, health, political and economic concerns, the rise of misinformation has been profound." They cite numerous instances where companies like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have faced criticism for facilitating the spread of misinformation online.
It's key to distinguish misinformation from its malicious relative, disinformation, the blog post adds. Though they might seem the same, Dictionary.com cautions that,
the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means 'deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.' So, the difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent.
For example: Back in 2017, Donald Trump Jr. accidentally told his followers to get out and vote on the wrong day. It (hopefully) wasn't intentional, just false information that he was spreading, so that's misinformation. But the Russian effort to intentionally spread politically damaging content on social media in order to influence an election? That would be disinformation.
"The recent explosion of misinformation and the growing vocabulary we use to understand it have come up again and again in the work of our lexicographers," said Jane Solomon, Linguist-in-Residence at Dictionary.com, in the statement. Misinformation, critically, is often shared by someone who themselves believes it to be true.
But this isn't the only word of note. The 2018 runners-up are also pretty telling: backlash, representation, and self-made. The company's lexicographers, the statement says, have also been keeping tabs on synonyms and other words related to misinformation over the last couple of years to reflect the changing connotations and meanings they've taken on. The online dictionary updated or created whole new entries for words to account for their increased usage in Americans' everyday language.
In updating the lexicon, Dictionary.com created five new entries: fake news, post-truth, post-fact, homophily, and filter bubble. They also revised the definitions for another six words: influencer, gatekeeper, disinformation, echo chamber, confirmation bias, and conspiracy theory.
Interestingly, "all of these changes and additions were made in the 2017-2018 time frame," Solomon says.
It follows another awkward — but important — pick for Word of the Year in 2017, when the online dictionary chose complicit for the annual honor. In that year's statement, the company said that they "aim to pick a Word of the Year that embodies a major theme resonating deeply in the cultural consciousness over the prior 12 months." So the fact that misinformation was the one that fit the bill? Yikes.
In the statement, Dictionary.com CEO Liz McMillan said that, along with the words from the previous three years — complicit, xenophobia, (2016) and identity (2015) — this year's word "reveals once again the perspective that we can gain by thinking about the words of our time."
"The emergence of a lexicon to describe misinformation alone is a telling sign," McMillan added. "By arming our users with these words and enabling them to identify misinformation when it is encountered gives us a fighting chance against its influence."
It's not clear what impact the Dictionary.com Word of the Year has on society beyond the world of word geeks, but there are signs to suggest it's at least a contributor to the the conversation. A few months after 2017's word, complicit, was announced in late November, a punk album was by the same name was released (and it featured Ivanka Trump on the cover).
In any case, there's no doubt that President Donald Trump feels some of what he sees and hears in the media isn't accurate. To date, he's tweeted about "fake news" 304 times since taking office, per TrumpTwitterArchive.com. Of course, he's also known for spreading false or misleading information — fact-checking site Politifact has a rundown of his latest inaccuracies.
Either way, misinformation feels like a fitting choice. Yet another reason to have your fact-check site bookmarked.